'You don't close an achievement gap by institutionalizing it." That's what former Gov. Jeb Bush wrote in a recent opinion piece. The governor who brought accountability and high-stakes testing to Florida's public schools believes expectations should be color-blind. He is right, and the state Board of Education has sent the wrong message by emphasizing different learning goals for different racial groups.
For more than a decade, Florida has been tracking the performance of its students on the FCAT and breaking down the results by race, ethnicity, income and disability, among other categories. The results showed achievement gaps, including a yawning one between the percentage of white students and African-American students reading at grade level.
Under the terms of the federal No Child Left Behind rules, all students were supposed to be reading at grade level by 2014. Realizing that was not going to happen, Florida and many other states applied for federal waivers and received them. And Florida's Board of Education has now adopted a strategic plan for the next six years based in part on that waiver.
That's where the problem comes in. The waiver sets different goals for different groups: Asians, whites, African-Americans, the economically disadvantaged, and students with disabilities among them. The Board of Education asserts that the goals are merely interim markers on the road to eliminating the achievement gap in a decade. The plan does expect substantial gains among black students. Now just 38 percent read at grade level (compared with 69 percent of white students), and the goal is to hit 74 percent by the 2017-18 school year (and for 88 percent of whites). The expectations follow a similar pattern for other subgroups.
But here's the heart of the matter: While it was unrealistic for all students to be reading at grade level by 2014, do Floridians accept that such a gap will still exist in six more years? A black student who is in kindergarten now will be about to enter middle school when the state's expectation is still that only three in four black students will be reading at grade level. That is a message that lacks the sense of urgency necessary to repair this state's education woes.
Gov. Rick Scott responded to the criticism of race-specific goals by asking the Board of Education to "clearly and sincerely acknowledge that all students are capable of performing at grade level regardless of their race or background and that our ultimate goal is to ensure there is no achievement gap in Florida's education system." That is a reasonable starting point.
Starting at a low point in 2001 when only 26 percent of African-American students were reading at grade level, the numbers rapidly improved for the next five years, to 39 percent in 2006. But the gains have since flattened out. Accepting that a substantial gap will still exist in six years — and institutionalizing the gap with race-specific goals — sets the bar too low, segregates children by race and sends the wrong signal. Even if the Board of Education's intentions are pure, the message being received is something altogether different.